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Marbled Country

Mastro's Steakhouse, 8852 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 480-585-9500. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Once upon a time, one of the country's largest stockyards flourished in the heart of Phoenix. Huge herds of cattle roamed in lots just a few miles from today's downtown.

Nobody minded. That's because until a few years ago, cattle-raising was considered a responsible occupation, and eating steak was considered a sign of healthy, red-blooded Americanism. Not anymore. Now, they're considered signs of pathology, socially irresponsible and self-destructive forms of behavior.

We're all familiar with the modern catalogue of beef evils. Environmentalists blame the cattle industry for everything from destroying the rain forest to methane pollution. Animal-rights groups believe the enterprise is immoral and inhumane. The medical community says red meat is a menace to your health. Even the Beef Council, in full retreat, recommends dainty, three-ounce portions.

But though the cows have disappeared from the Valley, the beef hasn't. Despite its demonization, around here, 1999 is still part of the good old days: In this cow town, we eat steak as if we've never heard of the Sierra Club, PETA or cholesterol.

The restaurant community certainly hasn't failed to notice the local obsession with beef. Savvy entrepreneurs aren't scurrying to build restaurants celebrating the virtues of ahi tuna, skinless chicken breast or couscous with portabella mushrooms. They are, however, rushing to put up high-end steak houses, featuring he-man cuts of heavily marbled animal protein.

One of the latest is Mastro's, run by the same group that operates the Valley's two Marco Polo Supper Clubs. Naturally, they've set up shop in burgeoning north Scottsdale, at the northeast corner of Wealth and Opportunity, otherwise known as Pima and Pinnacle Peak roads.

It's a smart-looking, 1940s-style place, with many pleasing, old-fashioned steak-house touches. The tables are adorned with heavy white linen and hefty cutlery. The high-backed, well-upholstered chairs make it easy to relax and enjoy the restorative powers of a pre-dinner cocktail. The wood-paneled walls are lined with the proprietors' homey family photos. Glass, brass and marble accents add a clubby note, as does the attendant in the men's rest room.

A one-man band behind the piano sings everything from Sinatra to Santana, and couples are occasionally inspired to take a spin on the small dance floor. A bustling bar dominates the main room, which is populated by stylish adults, a 30-and-over crowd that prefers to drive their gleaming luxury imports to the valet stand, despite the acres of do-it-yourself parking. The steaks are served, meanwhile, by professional waiters outfitted in snappy white jackets, who know when you want to talk and when you want to be left alone.

First, however, you have to get past the hostess station, where the help raises "attitude" to an art form.

Don't hold your breath waiting for a friendly "Welcome to Mastro's" greeting when you check in. Instead, after you give your name, the frosty young ladies will blink at you uncomprehendingly, as if you've just addressed them in medieval Welsh. On one visit, while we cooled our heels for some 20 minutes past our reservation time, no one ever apologized for the delay, or gave us an inkling as to when we might be seated. In fact, while we were waiting, we watched a group of loudmouths come in, whose leader asked to speak to the manager. A few moments later, I heard the blowhard announce to his buddies, "Hey, we can go in right now. We don't need reservations!" Even now, weeks after the incident, I'm still smoldering with resentment.

But while the front of the house could use some charm schooling, the kitchen, for the most part, needs no additional coursework. Indeed, occasionally, you may think it's graduated cum laude.

Meals get off to a swift start. A wonderful breadbasket, bearing chewy French bread and seed-crusted cheese sticks, makes for pleasant nibbling. So does the freebie plate of marinated veggies, an updated version of the old steak-house iced relish tray.

Appetizers are uncommonly strong. The seafood platter brings a mound of fresh-tasting shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari, vigorously seasoned and prettily displayed on radicchio fronds. The hearty stuffed mushrooms, sizzled in a skillet, are irresistible, and you'll need more will power than I have if you're able to resist mopping up the sauce with bread. Oysters Rockefeller are deftly done. And the warm spinach salad, gilded with goat cheese, bacon and red onions, will test your communitarian convictions. I thought it was too good to share.

Naturally, among Mastro's main dishes you'll find a couple of seafood entrees and a roast chicken plate, all aimed at the one person in everyone's group who can't handle red meat. But make no mistake, Mastro's deals in beef. And most of it is very impressive.

Mastro's sends out USDA prime, the highest grade beef. You can taste the difference. That's why folks are willing to pay between $25 and $30 for a steak here, instead of staying home and throwing a $7 supermarket steak on the grill.

Mastro's offers five different cuts. One is extra-special--the bone-in rib eye. When it's right, the rib eye can deliver the most powerful package of richly marbled taste and tenderness in all steakdom. Mastro's rib eye is right to the bone, 22 ounces of dazzling, primally satisfying beef that made me want to stand up and cheer. It's finished with a touch of sizzling butter, à la Ruth's Chris, where the chef used to work.

Two other models can compete in the rib eye's rarefied league. After you cut into it, the one-pound New York strip looks like something that could be on the cover of the Cattlemen's Association magazine. It tastes as good as it looks, full of beefy explosiveness. The high-octane, 18-ounce T-bone also gets your blood stirring.

Filet mignon is the tenderest cut, but its flavor isn't as deep as the rib eye, New York or T-bone. To remedy that deficiency, order the Mastro's filet, 12 butter-soft ounces drizzled with mozzarella.

The 26-ounce porterhouse is a comparative disappointment. With sirloin strip on one side of the bone, and filet on the other, this is usually my favorite cut. Mastro's model is good, but both the flavor and texture are a notch behind those at Morton's and The Grill at the TPC, where the Valley's porterhouse standards are set.

Two other forms of red meat are available, but I have a feeling the kitchen's heart isn't in either one of them. The rack of lamb doesn't shortchange you on quantity. But there's nothing distinctive at all about these $28.95 bones. You can do better elsewhere, and for less money. The $26.95, 16-ounce veal chop also doesn't offer much value, especially when you factor in the amount of untrimmed fat.

As in most high-end steak houses, the only things that come with Mastro's steaks are a knife and fork--the sides are all a la carte. In some places, the care and attention these accompaniments receive can rival the care and attention lavished on the steaks. Unfortunately, Mastro's is not one of those places.

Cottage fries are at their best when they come sizzling out of the kitchen. Our flabby spuds had been napping so long we had to send them back. To our astonishment, the second batch, delivered by an apologetic manager, wasn't much better. Lyonnaise potatoes didn't seem very energetic--its fried onions should have been hotter and more crispy. The battered onion strips didn't get beyond coffee-shop quality. Sauteed mushrooms were okay, but otherwise had no extra pizzazz. And the creamed spinach came nowhere close to the creamed spinach you find at Ruth's Chris. In short, we spent more than 25 bucks on Mastro's side orders, without getting $25 worth of value. The restaurant business is all about details, and this is one detail Mastro's kitchen needs to focus on.

The kitchen, however, does have a firm grasp on dessert. Anthony, our New York waiter, swore to us that the cheesecake is "just like Junior's." That's the Big Apple temple of cheesecake ecstasy that kept me in the "husky" section of clothing stores from 1960 until I left town in 1972. No doubt about it, Mastro's version is good, real good, very dense and very heavy, although not as creamily intense as Junior's.

"So how was it?" asked Anthony, when we finished. I nodded noncommittally, while my wife told him it wasn't quite as good as Junior's. "Yeah," he replied, "it's not exactly creamy enough." Hey, Anthony, don't tell me, tell the pastry chef.

But the pastry chef doesn't need any help with the rich creme brulee or the chocolate-dipped strawberries. But I thought the best way to finish up was with the champagne sorbet, a light, refreshing antidote to the massive steaks.

Mastro's is playing in a high-stakes game, in a high-steaks division. The steak-house competition is ferocious, in every segment of the market. Mastro's knows other steak houses can do it cheaper--choice-grade beef isn't nearly as costly as USDA prime. So Mastro's has to concentrate on doing it better. Right now, despite the occasional slip-ups, I'd say it's off to a promising start.

Mastro's Steakhouse:
Oysters Rockefeller
$9.95
T-bone steak
25.95
Bone-in rib eye
28.95
Cheesecake
6.

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Mastro's Steakhouse

8852 E. Pinnacle Peak Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85255

480-585-9500

www.mastrosrestaurants.com


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